Humanism Needs an Upgrade: The Philosophy that Could Save the World

There is a little known philosophy that—for me at least—is well founded in reality, provides a strong basis for compassionate ethics and will eventually become our predominant way of thinking. This philosophy also provides the best chance of solving the world’s problems. However, most people disagree with it.

Let’s Take a Philosophical Journey

We should start by using evidence and reason as the basis of our beliefs, because reality is all there is. Fictional stories are real things too—as patterns of brain activity, states within computers or as ink on a page—but the things those stories are about do not exist.

The use of evidence and reason goes beyond the scientific method as narrowly defined, but scientific thinking is at its core. The naturalist worldview (see the Brights) rejects belief in the supernatural and mystical because there is no good evidence for their existence. If evidence of these types of phenomena were discovered, they would no longer be supernatural and we could build factual knowledge about them.

The naturalist worldview includes atheism, which is simply a lack of belief in god, because there is no good evidence for the existence of god. Atheism in itself implies little about ethics—except to stipulate that they shouldn’t be driven by a belief in deities or in religions.

In this worldview, we must construct our own ethics: first, by granting moral consideration for all humans. We must do so because, from our own experience, we know directly that we can both suffer and flourish—we can experience both qualitatively bad and good things. Both science and our own experience show us that all humans experience suffering and flourishing largely as we do. We care about the experiences of other humans because of our evolved tendencies to co-operate and feel compassion, because of enlightened self-interest and perhaps because we strive to take an impartial standpoint not bound to our own perspective. While many aspire to feel equal compassion for all humans, most of us prioritize some over others—but we grant at least some meaningful moral consideration to all. That leads us to humanism.

Sentientism

Sentientism is an ethical philosophy that, like humanism, rejects the supernatural and applies evidence and reason. However, it grants moral consideration to all sentient beings, not just humans. Sentience  is  the capacity to experience suffering and flourishing. Things that can’t experience might be important in other ways, but they don’t warrant our moral consideration. A mountain or a river is important only because of the effect it has on the experiences of sentient beings like us.

Sentientism goes further than humanism because humans aren’t the only sentient beings. Other sentient beings deserve our moral consideration too: the most obvious being non-human animals. While scientific debate continues as to where to draw the boundaries between sentient and non-sentient beings (do sea sponges count?), it’s clear that the vast majority of animals, particularly those we farm in their billions, are sentient. It’s sentience, not a somewhat arbitrary species boundary, that matters.

Sooner than you think, we may also create or come across new types of sentient beings: general artificial intelligences or even alien species. Surely our ethics should help us think about how we should treat them and how they should treat each other, even as we also worry about how they will treat us.

The diversity of sentient beings is already breathtaking and science indicates that, between species, degrees of sentience vary substantially. The sentientist position allows us to grant different degrees of moral consideration, depending on where on the sentience spectrum something lies. This contrasts with anti-speciesism, which often implies that all animal species deserve equal moral consideration. (See Mark Wright’s explanation of this line of thinking here.) Sentientism also avoids anthropomorphizing animals. They are likely to experience differently from humans—but their ability to experience still warrants at least a base level of moral consideration.

If you’re a humanist atheist and a morally motivated vegan or vegetarian, you’re likely to be a sentientist. Although you may be unfamiliar with the term, the ethics will probably fit. However, the vast majority of people around the world disagree with sentientism in action, if not in belief. Many, while using evidence and reason daily, still grant the validity of supernatural or revealed knowledge. Others don’t grant moral consideration to animals and use products that require their suffering and death. Still others don’t grant proper moral consideration to sub-groups of humans, based on gender, sex, skin color, race, sexual orientation, disability, nation, tribe or some other classification or boundary.

How Can Sentientism Help Us?

Sentientism has much in common with humanism. Like humanism, it is pro-human rights and focused on our common global humanity. It is anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-ageist, anti-ableist, anti-nationalistic and anti-LGBTQ+phobic. Both humanism and sentientism help us focus on what we have in common—our humanity and our sentience. While identity politics can help identify problems and provide mutual support within groups, humanism and sentientism can develop collective solutions that we can all identify with and work on together.

Like humanism, sentientism is pro-science, reason and evidence and therefore  against fabrication, fake news, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, cultural relativism and religious and supernatural thinking. All the problems and opportunities we face—from the existential threats of climate change, nuclear war and biological or technological development, including AI, to the immediate challenges of global poverty, conflict prevention, development and health—are better addressed with facts and critical thinking, rather than dogma.

There are two areas in which sentientism goes further than humanism. For many, animal welfare is a critical issue in its own right, given the more than 100 billion animals we kill every year for food, drink and other animal products. Transitioning away from animal farming is also an important step towards reducing our negative impact on the environment in terms of land, water and energy use, emissions and pollution. While many humanists (including Humanists UK) already grant moral consideration to non-human animals, sentientism makes that explicit, as it views causing the suffering and death of sentient animals as ethically wrong.

Sentientism also helps us think through and prepare for the implications of general artificial intelligence (GAI). We need to crystallize and evolve our own ethics to help us align the ethics of GAIs safely: the concepts of sentience, evidence and reason help us do that. We also need to think carefully about the rights and moral considerations we might need to grant to AIs themselves as their sentience increases.

Sentientism as a Movement?

Sentientism has remained a fairly niche term since it was developed as a concept by philosophers like Richard D Ryder and Peter Singer in the 1970s. Since then, we have seen important yet separate developments in veganism, vegetarianism and animal rights on the one hand and in the rise of atheism and humanism on the other. These movements now have a plethora of local and international organizations, which build communities, drive activism and conduct lobbying—but there is little that brings the two threads together or underpins them.

There is already an untapped synergy between these movements. In a recent show-of-hands poll of an audience of around a thousand humanists, approximately 40% said they were vegan or vegetarian—a rate much higher than that of the general population. It also appears, again anecdotally, that moral vegans and vegetarians are more likely to be atheists or humanists than the general population. To me, that’s because evidence and reason underlie both viewpoints.

A range of other developments and movements also hint at a latent sentientist philosophy. Environmental and ethical concerns are driving more people to think about the animal suffering we cause and the damage to the planet occasioned by animal farming. The development of artificial intelligence is stimulating new fields of thought about robot rights. People are starting to recognize the limitations of identity politics in improving social cohesion and community building. The effective altruism movement is using evidence and reason to find out how we can do most good for all sentient life.

Maybe it’s time for us to upgrade humanism to sentientism, as an inclusive, well-grounded movement for addressing the world’s problems.

Human culture has enormous inertia and our traditional, in/out group and religious memes run deep. However, our ways of thinking are, fortunately, continuously and relentlessly shaped by reality. The influence of reality has already helped us progress rapidly over the centuries. Evidence- and reason-based thinking proves its worth every day—there is no viable alternative to slowly, skeptically becoming less wrong by observing reality and testing our thinking against it.

Reason and facts are also helping us to build a stronger foundation for our ethics. We are coming to understand more about sentient minds, what our experiences have in common with others and how we can reduce suffering and flourish. While in/out group thinking can seem to work for the in-group in the short term,   we’re all learning, sometimes painfully, that we do better as our circles of concern expand and as we co-operate ever more widely—ultimately, with all sentient beings.

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24 comments

  1. Jamie,

    Thanks for the very insightful article. I agree with almost everything you’ve written and would be proud to identify myself as a sentientist (although I do wish the term itself was less awkward; it suffers from the same defect as “speciesism”). However, I have to take issue with your prediction that this view “will eventually become our predominant way of thinking.” As a philosophy instructor who addresses the issue of animal rights with my students, I’m depressingly familiar with the common reactions to arguments in favor of vegetarianism. From my perspective, the case for reducing or eliminating animal products in our diet is all but irrefutable. (1) It’s wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on sentient beings. (2) Animals are sentient beings. (3) Factory farming inflicts massive amounts of suffering on farm animals. (4) The vast majority of meat, dairy and eggs Americans consume derives from factory farms. (5) Humans can be perfectly healthy and enjoy a satisfying diet without eating animal products. The conclusion seems obvious, and many of my students acknowledge the strength of the argument after offering and abandoning weak rationalizations. However, vanishingly few of them say they intend to eat less meat, let alone become vegetarian or vegan. Among those who do, many doubtlessly fail to follow through or backslide after a few months. Although they would be hard pressed to rationally justify their continued consumption of animals, factors like habit, custom, convenience, preference and peer pressure prove to be enormously powerful. A very small percentage of Americans identify as vegetarian, and surveys have revealed that a significant number of self-identified meat-avoiders actually eat meat on a regular basis! I do think that future generations will look back on factory farming with horror, much as we see slavery and the genocide of native people. However, I think that our diet (and, eventually, our ethical view) will change because of technological advancements, not moral convictions. Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I’m convinced that the development of lab-grown meat offers the only real hope of abolishing factory farms. A tiny fraction of people will voluntarily give up animal products for ethical reasons, but far more will accept cultured meat products once they become mainstream and affordable. Sadly, I think the same analysis applies to climate change. Humanity has proven that we’re utterly unwilling to make the kind of radical changes which are necessary to prevent catastrophic warming. I’m not sure that technology will actually save us from our own stupidity, but I fear that nothing else can or will.

    1. Thank you Kurt – much appreciated. You notice that I didn’t specify a time-frame… 🙂 I agree that we’re unlikely to see rapid change purely from the force of evidence and reason in the short-term whether re: climate or animal suffering. Our ability as a species to maintain cognitive dissonance is depressingly impressive. I also agree that, given our history, we often need a crisis or radical technological revolution to make those changes come about or render them unnecessary.

      At the same time, when we consider the longer term, we’ve made rapid progress in recent human history compared to the ~300k years we’ve been around. It feels like we’re at risk of rolling back the enlightenment at the moment, but I think we’ll make it stick and move forward. Humanism has become an impactful movement (as well as a philosophy) via organisations like IHEU https://iheu.org/. If we can upgrade humanism to being a sentientist movement we might be able to persuade a few more individuals at the same time as accelerating the institutional-level changes (e.g. clean meat) needed to reduce suffering even – if people are slow to think again. https://www.facebook.com/groups/sentientism/

  2. There is a problem with extending the “circle of concern” to include sentient animals. They are not in charge of their own lives and destinies, we are. The rights we want to extend to all humans include the right to self determination, we cannot extend these right to animals, or at least not to farm animals. The ultimate success of veganism and vegetarianism would not be the “flourishing” of farm animals, it would be their extinction. Depending on the level of suffering in these animals current lives this may still be a kindness. Vegans often compare our treatment of farm animals, with some justification, to slavery but they are very different. Would the abolition of slavery have been an unambiguous good if it had meant the extinction of those who used to be slaves?
    When it comes to “wild” animals the situation is, if anything, even more ambiguous because the truth is that the lives of non-domestic sentient animals are generally short, unpleasant, uncomfortable, and invariably ends in a painful, terrifying, early death. How are we, as sentienists, supposed to react to this? Can we deny the benefits of medical treatments for parasites to sentient animals? What about the ultimate problem, when the survival of one highly sentient animal depends on the death of other highly sentient animals. This is the normality of nature. She really is red in tooth and claw. Predators and prey are both sentient and the survival of one is completely dependent on either the brutal death or the starvation of the other.
    These are the facts of life that have to be faced and I don’t see they can be incorporated into a sentientism that can, in any meaningful way, be an extension of Humanism
    Please note that none of this in any way means that we should not improve animal welfare. We should and there is plenty of room for improvemen.

    https://secondthoughtfortheday.wordpress.com/2017/10/01/thoughts-about-veganism/

    1. “They are not in charge of their own lives and destinies, we are.”

      This really is the fundamental point, and a problem the likes of Singer have never managed to overcome.
      Bruno Latour has made a convoluted attempt to address it by referring to it as I believe a ‘speech impediment’ and arguing it’s really no different to some humans needing another human to speak on their behalf.
      He’s not in least convincing.
      Singer to his credit does at least raise some important issues regarding animal welfare, particularly in relation to Apes. Once the argument transfers over into the world of rights, the whole thing falls apart pretty quickly.

      1. Thanks Andrew. Per my reply above – there are interesting conversations to have about what rights we can or should grant to sentient animals and how those should relate to human rights. Sentient animals do have agency, so can be in charge of their own lives – albeit often constrained by other animals including us.
        While we work the rights ideas out, can’t we at least agree that the suffering and death of sentient beings is a bad thing we should try to reduce – regardless of the rights of those sentient beings? They experience. Experiencing suffering is bad. We have at least a degree of moral consideration for them – so let’s at least stop the suffering we deliberately cause?

        1. Sorry, I don’t buy the buy idea that non human animals have agency. Certainly not in the sense that we talk about human having agency with regards rights. Art1 of the UDHR talks of ‘endowered with reason and conscience…’.
          If you want to talk about improving animal welfare, and that any such laws should reflect levels of sentience I’m with you. But these are still ultimately human laws to constrain human action, and nothing to do with ‘rights’ in any meaningful sense however the language may be twisted. It remains humans protecting non human animals from other humans.

          1. I acknowledge there are differences between humans and other animal species, but I struggle to draw such clean lines as you seem to be doing. To me, our sentience, agency, consciousness and reasoning are set along a spectrum defined by our evolved biology and the ways we do advanced information processing. In the same way, I might grant different rights to non-human animals, but I can’t see why they wouldn’t warrant any rights at all.

          2. Sorry, but I remain in the same position I was after reading parts of Singer’s work. I’m sympathetic to the ends you’re going for in terms of what it means for animal welfare. I guess you’re welcome to use the word ‘rights’ as it is in ordinary useage, but to talk of non human animals having ‘rights’ in a robust sense is meaningless.

    2. Thanks for the comment. I am completely comfortable that in a future vegan world there would be billions fewer cows, sheep and chickens. I’m not really interested in the total population numbers for a species – I’m interested in the suffering and death of individual sentient beings. There’s an valuable wider conversation to have about animal rights and their viability – but the starting point for sentientism is simply about trying to reduce suffering and enhance flourishing for individuals.

      You’re right there is much suffering in the wild – but I don’t see how that justifies us causing much more suffering by breeding, harming then killing billions more. There are fascinating conversations to have about whether we should / how we could mitigate suffering in the wild. Those in no way prevent us from ceasing the industrial suffering we cause through animal farming in the meantime – why wait?

      Given the above – I don’t see why you can’t extend humanism’s moral consideration to a wider circle. It seems simple and desirable to me – regardless of any complexities about granting rights or the challenges of animal life in the wild.

      I’m glad you think we should improve animal welfare – isn’t that because you have already extended your own circle of moral concern to animals? I just want more people to do the same and for us all to strive to do so consistently. This doesn’t mean granting equality between animals and humans or granting animals equivalent rights. It just means extending our moral consideration to them and then acting on that consideration to reduce their suffering and enhance their flourishing.

  3. No.

    You are welcome to believe and do as you like, but the minute you start telling me what I can eat or not you’ve crossed a line. I’ve an elk, deer, and bear tag for the season that opens in 2 weeks and I intend on filling them. When humans stop killing each other in the most despicable ways, we can have a discussion. Animal rights supporters are often violent human haters who troll with death threats against people’s children. No thanks.

    1. I’m not telling you what you can eat. I’m just expressing my view that causing suffering and death to sentient creatures is not a good thing – you seem to disagree. I agree that humans causing suffering to other humans is arguably our most critical problem. However, I don’t see why we need to wait until that problem is solved (maybe never) before reducing the violence we do to other sentient beings.

  4. I love the article as well as the philosophy. One caveat I would put forward, however, is to be careful to distinguish between cultural relativism and moral relativism. They are not the same. In this article you are likely referring to moral relativism as a perspective to avoid, but you use the term cultural relativism instead. Cultural relativism suggests that certain cultures are superior to others, and this is a concept that is difficult to dispute if one uses impartial facts and evidence. Thus, I would argue that moral relativism is abhorrent, but cultural relativism is not.

    1. Actually, I need to correct myself here, I got mixed up about the definition of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism suggests that a person’s values should be understood based on their culture, and I think that’s a valid concept, as long as it doesn’t morph into moral relativism. The distinction is still there, and it’s an important one to make.

      1. Thanks David. I may not have been precise enough on the terminology (I’m an amateur here…). I do see the two concepts as closely related. It is useful to think from the perspective of a particular culture about why a set of ethics or behaviours has developed and how they’re seen in that culture. However, what I want to resist, is the temptation to then judge those ethics or behaviours from within that cultural perspective. I’m keen for us to take a stance, based on evidence and reason, that is able to assess ethics independently of any particular culture. It will always be a struggle to reduce bias – but cultural / moral relativism just gives up completely – sinking willingly into bias and getting stuck there, expressing no opinion at all. In the extreme, I could make up a “culture” now – with arbitrary ethics – and no one can judge or censure me.

        1. Thanks for the response, Jamie. The reason I stress the distinction between cultural and moral relativism is because I consider cultural relativism to be a useful tool in trying to understand the epistemology of an individual from a particular culture when faced with a situation when a greater understanding of their motivations is necessary, such as when we are forced to investigate a behaviour which may be alien to us, or even when an offense or crime is committed. I certainly do not advocate judging morality as an objective set of guidelines based on the criteria of a specific culture, certainly not one where these criteria are not evidence-based and whose ontology isn’t examined using a critical lens.

      2. Can you explain your understanding of the difference and how CR doesn’t become MR?
        If values at the level of rights are best understood at the level of culture than that’s MR and denial of universal values. If you accept the idea of universal value but assert other less fundamental things are best understood at the level of culture, you’re saying little more than different cultures exist.

        1. Andrew, cultural relativism and moral relativism are well-defined concepts, they are not my own formulation. As I mentioned above, cultural relativism is the concept that a person’s values should be understood based on their culture rather than our own, or some universal set of morals. For example, when attempting to understand the motivations of an individual from a society that practices cannibalism, who has killed an enemy and eaten parts of the body, it is important to properly situate this behaviour within the context of their cultural norms. Having said that, I’m certainly not advocating for moral relativism, the idea that morals are subjective based on individual cultures, and thus that there are no superior or inferior sets of morals. I firmly believe that we can establish an objective set of morals based on an examination of well-being versus suffering, as Sam Harris suggests in The Moral Landscape, so moral relativism is not my thing. Cultural relativism should be seen not as a guiding principle of a society that wishes to achieve a high set of morals or ethics, but rather as an instructional toolkit for anthropological study as well as a more compassionate insight into individual and societal norms and behaviours.

          1. David,

            That’s basically the response I was expecting, but outside the narrow confines of anthropology they aren’t well defined (at least in terms of differences) and are used interchangeably. This is understandable as the moment you consider the ethnical merit of any cultural practice the distinction collapses. You don’t need to go to something as extreme as cannibalism, you could pick honour cultures or purity doctrines that tend towards patriarchy. What happens usually is not more ‘compassion’ but a kind of bigotry of low expectations and the absurd mental gymnastics played by many western feminists to argue that non western cultures which deny basic rights to women aren’t really oppressive but the West is. It also leads to nonsense like ‘Asian values’ or Huntington’s thesis (both brilliantly torn to shreds by Amarya Sen)
            You either believe for instance that gender equality should be a universal norm and examples of it being denied to women are an injustice or you don’t. Whatever Relativism you use to study a culture, in the real world you can’t avoid making a judgement.
            And if we’re quoting Sam Harris, who are we not to judge.

  5. Interesting article, thanks Jamie (and for the link!) I’m am atheist, but I wonder if religious people who otherwise agree with sentientist principles might question the necessity of explicitly including atheism in the philosophy?

    1. Thanks Mark. There’s an interesting parallel here with humanism. Many people that hold religious / supernatural views do extend moral consideration to all humans so may identify with humanist morals. To my mind, the reason humanism and sentientism both specify evidence and reason as the foundation for their ethics – is that this makes those ethics well founded. I’m happy for someone to be widely compassionate because of supernatural beliefs – but I’d prefer them to be widely compassionate because of reality. Too often, if the motivation is supernatural, the compassion develops glaring gaps. Also – the compassion feels more powerful to me when it’s the central point of the philosophy. In most religions, love for the deity comes before all else. Love for yourself, your neighbour and the wider world follows behind – sometimes far behind.

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